It's pretty safe to say Kenneth Branagh is obsessed with Shakespeare. He's directed five film adaptations, and done countless more onstage. In All Is True, he finally gets to play the Bard himself. Having seen many of his faithful and lavish versions of Shakespeare's great plays, I thought I knew what to expect. But I was wrong in the best way. All Is True is a gorgeous, moving, frequently hilarious film about regret and death.
Despite being the most famous man in all of England, William Shakespeare's return to Stratford-upon-Avon isn't exactly welcomed. Many townspeople find him snooty and sinful, while his own family isn't thrilled either. He spent much of his life in London, working non-stop and getting his love from actors, royals and paying customers. Now that's he's returned to live out his retirement with his family, he finds his family has mostly moved on. His wife Anne (Judi Dench) has him sleep in another room. His youngest daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is trapped in a loveless marriage to the town doctor (Hadley Fraser), while his eldest Judith (Kathryn Wilder, truly exceptional) is a spinster filled with regret that her twin brother Hamnet died when they were kids. Will still needs to grieve, but they finished their mourning long ago.
All Is True is filled with some truly striking images, and many of its dialogue scenes are filmed in long takes. It all ads up to a sumptuous film about grappling with joy and sorrow, regretting what is lost and cherishing what you still have. Its high point comes during Ian McKellen's cameo as Henry Wriothesley, an earl who was a friend and patron of Shakespeare's. But writer Ben Elton runs with the theory that their relationship was even deeper than that. Over wine, they share tender, heartbreaking memories of what might have been, reciting the poetry Will dedicated to Henry.
Yet the film saves its emotional gut-punch for the climax of the film, when Will learns more details about one of the most tragic events in his life. It's devastating, but helps each of the characters grow and deepen their love for each other. Even when it seems like there was nothing else for us to gain from the life and works of Shakespeare, Branagh and Elton give us one of the most powerful experiences of 2019.